“Defending Jacob” by William Landay is a courtroom drama that hinges on the murder of a high school boy. The novel opens amid a grand jury hearing, with Andy Barber, a former assistant district attorney, being grilled by Neal Logiudice who happens to have been Andy’s protégé. The questions involve whether or not Andy should have been investigating the killing of a boy named Ben Rifkin. The case fell into Andy’s professional bailiwick, but the victim was a classmate of Jacob Barber, Andy’s 14-year-old son.
Landay turns out to be creating a clever blend of legal thriller and issue-oriented family implosion. It’s possible to get almost all the way through “Defending Jacob” without knowing whether he can pull this off. It helps that Andy is as ignorant about Jacob as he is savvy about courtroom theatrics. Before the murder, Andy and his wife, Laurie, just didn’t know much about their son. These are comfortable suburban parents who think they have done all the right things in raising their son. They’ve never needed to question that assumption. But the way that Jacob found Ben’s body in the woods casts suspicion on Jacob. So does the fact that Ben was a bully, using Jacob as a frequent target. And it turns out, to Andy and Laurie’s horror, that Jacob’s classmates have always found him a little strange. The more they uncover about this, the more “Defending Jacob” heats up.
excerpts from NY Times review by Janet Maslin, 2/12/2012